It's been nearly seven years since the W.C. Bradley Co. made its first condominium sale at the Eagle & Phenix complex overlooking the Chattahoochee River in downtown Columbus.
The company, which has invested upwards of $60 million into saving and restoring the former textile mill on Front Avenue, is now down to its last few new residences.
The current moment is not lost on Leah Braxton, vice president of broker services with W.C. Bradley's real-estate division, who recalls about 25 condo sales closing during that first wave in summer 2008. That was in the heart of the Great Recession.
"It was really important to us for this to go right," she said during a tour Wednesday of the Eagle & Phenix on Front Avenue. "So instead of panicking -- and there was no debt on this project -- we said we're just going to set the course right. We know what we're doing. The economy just has to participate a little bit better. So we were fine with a slowdown in sales and the proof's in the pudding. It's been an exciting venture for us."
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The extensive transformation project of the mid-1800s-era mill into a mixed-use complex of condos, apartments, restaurant, retail and office space began in 2003, when W.C. Bradley bought the 16-acre property from Pillowtex Corp. as it was going out of business. The original 88 condo units on the drawing board have been reduced in number due to a few buyers combining some of them to create more space.
Finding a home in the city
Ann Moore inhabits one of those units, having purchased a three-bedroom, three-bath condo nearly two years ago from a couple who had used an architect to design a "beautiful" living space facing north on the property's third floor. She made the move from a large farm in Chattahoochee County after her husband, Bill, died in early 2012.
"After living down there in our own little private world for more than 20 years, I just could not see going back and looking at city streets and traffic and that sort of thing," she said of returning to Columbus, where the couple had raised their sons before leaving the city. "When I decided I needed to go somewhere else to simplify things, I didn't look anywhere else. I knew where I was going. It was just a matter of deciding which unit."
That somewhere was the Eagle & Phenix, where the 71-year-old Moore enjoys opening her balcony doors during pleasant weather, stepping out of her condo and "hearing and feeling" the river. She also enjoys walking and riding her bicycle occasionally on the Chatthoochee RiverWalk.
"And, of course, there's all sorts of great restaurants. I was at the theater last night, CSU Riverside," she said. "I walk to the post office. I can walk to church. Anything except a grocery store we have down here, and they'll get that eventually."
Braxton agrees that such a supermarket will make its way to the downtown area, but it probably isn't destined for the Eagle & Phenix. She said the ground floor space under the Mill No. 3 condo building will likely become home to more restaurants and niche retail shops. The upscale EPIC restaurant already is on the bottom level of the structure.
The major catalysts
Columbus State University, as it has already done in recent years with its downtown RiverPark campus, looks to be the catalyst for new development inside the Eagle & Phenix, Braxton said. When the university's new College of Education and Health Professions opens in fall 2016 on the former Ledger-Enquirer site, it will bring about 1,800 students and faculty to the immediate vicinity on any given day, with night classes also taking place.
"It will activate the ground floor here," the real-estate broker said. "That's what our goal is. We held off on the ground floor because we wanted the right person. We wanted to make sure it was a success. But we are now working some things that will be really neat."
At the moment, however, W.C. Bradley Co. is trying to tie the proverbial bow atop the condo project. There is a new three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath unit now available on the fifth floor for $529,900. There's also a new two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath unit on the market for $465,000.
But there is one other space left that could be called the presidential suite because of its fifth-floor presence, soaring ceilings and an upper room -- somewhat like a turret -- that is at the level of what would be a sixth floor, with views east, west and south.
"It's the only unit in the whole place that has a true sixth floor," Braxton said of the 3,700-square-foot premium unit that could be divided into 2,100 and 1,600 square feet if need be. The company has been holding off on marketing it until the right moment, she said, which is now, with downtown literally bubbling with recreation-fueled activity and teeming with new faces brought by major employers, CSU and entrepreneurs moving into the area.
"It's a melting pot," she said. "Columbus used to be old families and there just wasn't a lot of new blood. But I think the new blood has now come to Columbus and it's got a lot of vitality, a lot of energy. Everybody has so many neat, cool ideas. It's not just one person pushing this" downtown redevelopment.
A place to meet new people
Elizabeth Martin agrees. The Columbus native had been living in New York for two years before making a move back here, taking an apartment less than a month ago at the Eagle & Phenix, which has about 90 units for lease. That would include three large apartments in what was a former machine shop at the mill. None of those three are available.
"It's pretty special," said Martin, 31, of downtown living as she was taking a walk on the Eagle & Phenix grounds with her lovable French Bulldog named Sophie. "The quality of living here is much better, just because in New York everything is so cramped. My apartment there was like a fourth of the size of this one. I was paying about three times as much in New York for about a fourth of the space."
Martin said she also likes the fact that there are new people to meet in Columbus, and downtown in particular, these days. That's not how she remembers the environment growing up.
"Before, it was like everyone was from Columbus," she said. "You couldn't go anywhere and not know someone. Now it's different, and I love that. It's great. It makes it feel more like Athens."
Braxton concedes there's more work to be done downtown, and the riverfront still has key pieces remaining to develop. That includes about six acres at the northern end of the company's property, adjacent to the Frank K. Martin Pedestrian Bridge and a very short stroll to the TSYS campus. She estimates W.C. Bradley will spend in the neighborhood of $100 million on that parcel of land, since it will be brand new construction, although there's no timeline yet for work to begin.
Braxton said downtown enthusiasts should expect more residential offerings on the acreage, perhaps some retail space, with a hotel a possibility. But, as it has done with the Eagle & Phenix project thus far, the company expects to be deliberate when it comes to making any final decision on what goes there and when.
"The Bradley Co. has developed four blocks on the riverfront. We take pride in that we like to go find best practices in other communities. We like to go find experts that have done it," she said. "We know we've got one shot at this."